The Real Jesus

Since nowadays I’m in the mood to talk about apologetics, let me mention something apologists do that I used to think wasn’t all that important. Even though most of them do not spend a large amount of time on this, they do present arguments for Jesus’ existence. For me I felt knowing that Jesus of Nazareth (known as the Christ among his followers) was a real historical person is an absolute no brainer. To doubt his existence is to dismiss most of ancient history and effectively reject historiography. I did not think a sufficiently well educated person in the 21st century would even entertain such thoughts. As to whether you believe Jesus’ claims is a separate issue but the fact of his existence is indisputable. So I really wondered why apologists would even devote time to it. Then a few days ago one thing shattered this naïve assumption of mine.

I was whiling away time viewing a WatchMojo video on the 10 most influential orators of history. Surprisingly, Jesus was not on top of the list even though almost half of the human population on this planet think he is in some way important. He didn’t even make the cut. Someone in the comment section pointed out that Jesus should have been first and a series of strange responses ensued. Several people with full confidence actually said Jesus was never real. With the full assurance of dewy eyed ignorance, they unabashedly thought Jesus was made up. One guy trying to sound knowledgeable said there are no primary sources for his existence. A wry smirk appeared on my face as laughed hollowly on the inside like Rocket did in Guardians of the Galaxy after hearing a bit of confident nonsense. The sad thing is there is no plot device to make this sort of thinking correspond to reality. A few weeks before, I saw a female atheist YouTuber in a video of hers apologising because she was just about to disprove the existence of Jesus.

I knew there were such characters running around but I thought they were few and far between, lurking in the dark corners of Reddit and other obscure parts of the internet inhabited by conspiracy theorists. It really shocked me that Westerners who have the best education and easy access to information would dare think that out loud. Over a year ago, a local celebrity came out to deny Jesus’ existence. Levels of education are not too high in Ghana, as you would expect in a developing country, so I chalked her gullibility to that. She actually fell for the old pagan myth hypothesis, which by the way no serious historian today would touch with a pole. The fact is virtually no credentialed ancient historian working today in academia doubts Jesus of Nazareth really lived. Yes, there is a lot debate surrounding him but his existence is not one of them. Scholarship has come a long way since the 19th century where such ideas were still en vogue. It is so sad to think that in the most Jesus’ influenced culture in the world, there are people who literally do not know him. Not only does this mean the task of evangelism is still very much needed, apologetics also has a very big role to play.

Now in the comment section there were many other people who did know Jesus existed. In fact many of them also thought he should have been on top even though they were not Christians. It’s not as if the majority of people, in the West anyway, think his existence is doubtful. However, there are enough people who question it to raise alarm. The historian and theologian N.T. Wright has said on several occasions, the best place to talk about Jesus in schools is in history classes, not religion. Jesus is such a colossal historical figure and the movement he founded is so strange, anomalous even, and still potent to this day that it’s worth studying.

A lot of very enlightened people take Jesus very seriously. I recently read an article by the brilliant atheist philosopher John Gray on the influence of the great German nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche. In it he talked about Jesus’ eschatology but unfortunately he thought the young Nazarene prophet believed the space-time world was literally and imminently coming to an end. Not being a historian I will not fault Professor Gray too much for getting that wrong. When you read the New Testament, filtered through the lens of contemporary culture, it might seem its apocalyptic visions are actually talking about the cataclysmic collapse of this reality. Again as Professor Wright points out, when you see the “stars falling” in Holy Scripture, it is not an ancient weather report. It is rather symbolic language which we have mistaken for literal. Even among very well educated, intelligent people, they still have a lot of catching up to do on Jesus. Even the Church has to refresh itself.

Historical Jesus studies has progressed so much since the German sceptic Reimarus kicked it off in the early 18th century. I have a brief post outlining the major trends in the development of the academic study of Jesus which you can find here. What first drew me into taking historical Jesus studies seriously was a presentation on YouTube of the minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus by Dr Gary Habermas. As most people are, I was quite unsure about what the academy had to say about Jesus since I know a lot of scholars are very dismissive of what the Church has to say about him. Through it and my subsequent forays into that field to my surprise and delight, I realised that scholarship roughly said the same thing about Jesus as the Church. Of course there are differences in the details but I saw that generally speaking, the New Testament is regarded by modern scholarship as a reliable historical document. 20th century German form criticism which contended that the Church just moulded Jesus into what she wanted him to be, have fallen out of favour in scholarship. (I wondered to myself, ‘if something as fantastic as the resurrection can be defended rigorously academically, why aren’t they believers?’ but that is a question for another time.) Those popular comparisons of the New Testaments transmission to Chinese whispers (the telephone game if you are American) is just wrong. Perhaps, that is what led that commenter to erroneously say there are no primary sources for Jesus. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham is a hefty read but it is a powerful refutation of such ideas. Even something as contentious as the deity of Jesus, emeritus professor of New Testament Larry Hurtado remarks that there is a growing scholarly consensus on early high Christology i.e. the worship of Jesus as divine not being a later invention of the Church but something present from the beginning.

If the world does not know that well our Jesus and his impact on the world even among well-meaning unbelievers who want to fairly represent him, it means the Church has the solemn responsibility to make him known, not just in the evangelistic or theological sense but the historical as well. This is very important for the West which is embroiled in culture wars that are particularly heated in North America. The Western world desperately needs to remember its Christian heritage. Fortunately, more and more voices both Christian and non-Christian are bringing it up. The world of historical Jesus scholarship is filled with people from all worldviews but the believer obviously has a great personal investment in it. The gap between the ivory tower and the steeple needs to be bridged. There are a lot of wonderful Christian scholars helping to do this like N.T. Wright, a very gifted speaker and prolific author, who produces popular level work. The advent of the information superhighway means there are no excuses for the laity not making the effort to engage with the academy. A good entry level work on the historical Jesus is Evidence for the Historical Jesus by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson. For a more academic but still popularly accessible introduction to the subject I recommend The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright. The partnership must happen both ways between church and campus so we can be enriched by all the different gifts of the members of Christ’s body.

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